Appreciating Richard Seaver, editor of ‘bombshell’ books

Saturday, January 24, 2009

In his time as one of the most prominent editors at the independent publisher Grove Press, Richard Seaver flew in the face of conventionality and literary censorship to bring some of the most avant-garde 20th century writers to American readers.

Seaver, who died of a heart attack Jan. 6 in New York, worked for Grove in the late 1950s and 1960s. During this period Grove “put itself on the front lines of First Amendment battles,” as The Washington Post said Jan. 8 in reporting Seaver’s death. While Seaver worked there — eventually becoming editor in chief — Grove published provocative works by D.H. Lawrence, Henry Miller, the Marquis de Sade, William S. Burroughs and Samuel Beckett, among others.

Works Grove published by these authors, and subsequent court cases associated with them, led to a landscape-altering fight against censorship in this country, culminating in the 1966 Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court decision on Burroughs’ Naked Lunch. When the attorney general of Massachusetts filed a petition to Superior Court alleging that the book was obscene, the court concurred, but the Supreme Judicial Court, the highest in Massachusetts, eventually overturned the decision.

This victory against censorship led Frederick Whiting to declare in his 2006 article, “Monstrosity on Trial: The Case of Naked Lunch” in the journal Twentieth Century Literature that “the controversy surrounding [Naked Lunch’s] publication was the last instance of complete literary censorship in the U.S. — the end of the unspeakable.”

Seaver had arrived at Grove several years earlier in the midst of a court case over Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover. Though the novel was ruled obscene in 1929 and actively banned across the country, Grove owner Barney Rosset announced his firm would publish it uncensored and with intent to distribute. Thus began the first in a series of cases during Seaver’s tenure at Grove in which the company pushed against obscenity laws.

Seaver later called this a “very exciting, febrile time.” As quoted in a Dec. 15, 2008, Newsweek article about Rosset, Seaver went on to say:  “We almost did a yearly bombshell. Barney loved — I won't say he loved the litigation, but he loved everything that went with it.”

“We had always thought of ourselves as liberators,” Seaver told Newsweek. “We all felt we were working for a cause instead of a publishing house.”

In 1961 Grove published Henry Miller, whom George Orwell once called “the only imaginative prose writer of the slightest value who has appeared among the English-speaking races in some time.” After Grove’s American publication of Miller’s novel Tropic of Cancer, police in Chicago and other cities confiscated the books and attempted to intimidate booksellers. Numerous court cases were filed, leading to a Supreme Court ruling in Grove Press, Inc., v. Gerstein (1964), in which the Court overturned state court decisions, declaring the book not obscene and citing its social value.

Even before his arrival at Grove Press, Seaver had an eye for the incendiary. In the early 1950s, after founding the literary magazine Merlin in Paris, Seaver discovered an author then unknown to American audiences. The controversial, deeply pessimistic Samuel Beckett, Seaver reflected in 2006, was at that time “one of the most important people writing [yet] was totally unknown.” It was after Seaver had connected Beckett with Rosset at Grove that Rosset hired Seaver. At Seaver’s death, Rosset told The Washington Post that “‘there was nobody more important’ at Grove than Seaver.”

In his long career, Seaver edited or published a variety of books ranging from literature to politics to psychology.

After leaving Grove, he worked at Viking, Holt Rinehart and Winston and, in the last 20 years of his life, founded Arcade Publishing with his wife, Jeanette. Arcade has become one of the most prominent independent publishers left in the United States, according to The New York Times.

One of the last books he edited and published was Chaplin: A Life in Film, by Stephen Weissman, published in November 2008.

On the Arcade Web site, Seaver and his wife wrote: “We have flown in the face of the marketplace, which increasingly favors the tried and true over the new or challenging. If new voices are not allowed to emerge, where will tomorrow's major writers and bestsellers come from?”

Caroline Tenenbaum is a senior majoring in political science at Belmont University in Nashville, Tenn.

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